COVID-19 outbreak in Israel leads to tightened restrictions

Local mask mandate and travel bans go into effect after some 130 children in three schools test positive for the Indian variant of the virus.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Israel is tightening restrictions in response to the new outbreak of the Indian strain of the coronavirus among children in several schools in different parts of the country.

As of Monday morning, Channel 12 News reported that 132 people have tested positive: 79 children and one adult from a Binyamina junior high school in northern Israel, 37 students from two Modiin schools in the center of the country, and 15 from a special-needs high school in coastal Netanya, 10 of them staff members. A vast majority are reportedly symptom-free.

In immediate reaction to the flood of positive tests, the Health Ministry mandated that all students and personnel in the three cities should wear masks both indoors and outdoors on school property to prevent spreading the disease further. It also announced that it was now “strongly recommending” that all children aged 12-15 be vaccinated, which it did not do as soon as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved for emergency use for this age group last month.

Returnees from abroad without isolating until receiving the results of their mandatory coronavirus tests are suspected as the source of the outbreak. In general, since June 1, out of the 352 new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in Israel, almost half – 170 – originated from travelers.

This led Israel’s cabinet to decide Sunday night on a range of moves. Except for those receiving special permission, a complete travel ban to high-risk countries will be enforced. These locations currently include India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Russia and South Africa.

The rules for testing incoming passengers will be strictly enforced. A Kan News report revealed that this past weekend, 2,880 incoming travelers were allowed to leave Ben Gurion Airport without being tested for the coronavirus. The high number of passengers had overwhelmed the testing system there, and to enable people to get to their destinations before the Sabbath, the Health Ministry allowed those coming from low-risk countries to go without it.

To help with the higher number of passengers, the cabinet also decided that a new COVID testing center will be set up at Ben Gurion Airport. On the enforcement side, 250 more police officers will be checking up at the destinations of those who have entered the country, and work will be renewed on the plan to have those in isolation wear electronic bracelets to ensure their compliance.

The Indian version of the coronavirus, called the Delta variant, is considered up to 60% more infectious than the original strain. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that protects more than 90% of the over-50 age group in Israel is very effective in preventing serious cases of the variant, although it has not been able to stop people from catching it. Reportedly, up to a third of those testing positive for the Delta variant had been inoculated.